SHAMANS AND SCIENTISTS: THE HEALING POWER OF AYAHUASCA SUPPORTED BY NEUROSCIENCE
As Feilding says through science “we are just starting to understand how these magic ancestral plants work.”
A research program in the universities of Beckley and Sant Pau is dedicated to studying the effects of this infusion on people with depression, addiction and trauma. Ayahuasca experiences offer a “vital window of opportunity for psychotherapy”, because patients tend to be much more receptive during the effects of the plant. Observations of this drug on brain connection are impressive and its healing use has a magnitude that western science is just starting to envision.
Ayahuasca is one of the most potent hallucinogens in the planet. Until recently there had been negative writings about her, described by lawmakers and academics as a dangerous narcotic, unfit for consumption or scientific research. But for centuries the indigenous people of the Amazon basin have used her to treat several forms of physical and psychological sickness and thanks to a recent interest from the “western” world, the channels for studying this substance have opened up.
What is ayahuasca
Ayahuasca is a psychedelic infusion used by shamans in rituals and initiation rites in the Amazonian region, made with a plant called chacruna or chacrona (Psychotria viridis) mixed with the ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi) vine. The chacruna contains a potent psychedelic compound, called N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), found in almost all the plants and animals we consume, but that is destroyed by enzymes called Monoamino-oxidase (MAO) when it reaches the intestines; that is why it does not reach the brain or cause hallucinogen effects.
To avoid this, this plant is mixed with ayahuasca (B. caapi), that contains the compounds that inhibit the MAO, which block them and ensure that DMT reaches the brain. The result is an intense psychic journey that lasts 4 to 6 hours.
Is it dangerous?
Jordi Riba is a scientist that studies the effects of ayahuasca on the human brain, as part of a program from the universities of Beckley (Virginia, USA) and Sant Pau (Barcelona, Spain). “The active ingredients of both plants are eliminated from the organism after a few hours, so toxicity and overdosing are very unlikely”, explains the researcher to IFLScience.
The concoction is safe from a physical perspective, but without the correct preparation, an ayahuasca experience can be psychologically shocking. “Some people may experience anxiety because of the unusual intensity and nature of the experience. This is the most common case for people who travel to the Amazon to drink ayahuasca with people they do not know or trust, in unfamiliar environments”, explains Riba.
Actually, while members of Amazonian communities are prepared from birth to deal with the visions from ayahuasca experiences, it is quite common that backpackers remain a bit affected by their psychedelic experiences.
What are the benefits of ayahuasca?
Although its effect may scare some people, it has in fact been proven that ayahuasca experiences expand the mind and have therapeutic value. “People who have drank ayahuasca tell that they have faced their painful personal issues and assure that have reached a deeper comprehension about them, which has helped to solve them”, says Riba. “We have seen people who have been able to overcome grave addictions to cocaine and opiates, after some sessions with ayahuasca”.
A study conducted by the Beckley and Sant Pau universities found that taking this infusion produced an antidepressant effect on people that had been unable to heal with other treatments. The most surprising fact was that improvement symptoms were noticed immediately after the ayahuasca session and persisted for several weeks. Riba affirms that these experiences offer a “vital window of opportunity for psychotherapy”, for patients tend to be much more receptive during the effects of the plant.
Mastering the post-experience period (that Riba calls afterglow) could lead to faster, more effective and more lasting treatments for depression. Discovering the neurological mechanisms behind these effects is the great challenge for ayahuasca researchers and, to this moment, several pieces have been fitted into the puzzle.
This is how ayahuasca works on the brain
“We found that brain connectivity changes during the 24 hours following an ayahuasca session”, says Riba. During this period, “areas of the brain linked to creating and maintaining the sense of self acquire better connections with other regions that process emotions and autobiographical memories”.
It was found that the magnitude of this effect is correlated to the increase in certain key aspects linked to mindfulness, which is one of the main objectives of meditation and this is measured by a system of scientifically validated surveys.
To delve even deeper into the mystery of this psychedelic, Riba and his team found that long-term ayahuasca users show a shrinkage in the cerebral region called “posterior cingulated cortex”. Amanda Feilding, who founded and directs the Beckley Foundation, told IFLScience that the posterior cingulated cortex is “an important nuclear centre of the default-mode network (DMN), that receives and represents perceptions, carrying rigid thought patterns and knowledge that underlie psychological disorders like depression, addiction and post-traumatic stress”.
Studies with brain scans have shown that, under the psychedelic effects of DMT, LSD and psilocybin, “the repressive control of the default-mode network is decreased, which is why there is an increased connectivity on the whole brain and perception is enhanced; the psyche is “rebooted” and people feel like they can free themselves of certain patterns of compulsive thought and behaviour”.
The reduction in the size of the posterior cingulated cortex plays an important role in the effect that ayahuasca has, but it is likely that this is not the only factor. For example, another study revealed that alpha brain waves are reduced during the ayahuasca experience.
Because a large part of the default-mode network is coordinate by alpha waves, it is not surprising that a decrease in these waves happens along with a reduction in mental rigidity (the repressive control of the DMN) and an increase in the meditative state (mindfulness). A similar effect has been observed during meditation, which suggests that both therapeutic practices activate the same neurological circuits.
Riba affirms that “the three main areas for ayahuasca treatment are depression, addiction and psychological trauma”. As Feilding says through science, “we are just starting to understand how these magical ancestral plants work”.
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